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REVIEW: The Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart

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It’s all a grand adventure when Christy Mansel unexpectedly runs into her cousin Charles in Damascus. And being young, rich, impetuous, and used to doing whatever they please, they decide to barge in uninvited on their eccentric Great-Aunt Harriet—despite a long-standing family rule strictly forbidding unannounced visits. A strange new world awaits Charles and Christy beyond the gates of Dar Ibrahim—”Lady Harriet’s” ancient, crumbling palace in High Lebanon—where a physician is always in residence and a handful of Arab servants attends to the odd old woman’s every need.

But there is a very good—very sinister—reason why guests are not welcome at Dar Ibrahim. And the young cousins are about to discover that, as difficult as it is to break into the dark, imposing edifice, it may prove even harder still to escape . . .

Dear Readers,

I’ve been trying to think back over my Mary Stewart reading history and remember which was the book of hers I started with. There was a wire paperback book rack in my high school library with almost all of her (then) books on it and I think it was this groovy cover that caught my eye. I mean really, that dress. But it does show that this is a 1967 book which turns out to be important to the story.

It might be nostalgia coloring my view but this is another darn good effort from Stewart which plunks the reader down in the (then) exotic locals of Syria and Lebanon back in the days before the Lebanese Civil War turned Beirut from the “Paris of the Middle East” into a battleground. The detailed descriptions of the settings are enough to put you right there though this time around I felt that perhaps Stewart did go on a bit in cataloging the flora and geological scenery. How many ways do you need to describe scrub bushes, barren rocks and the heat?

Having said that, other descriptions in the book are magical. The run-in Christy and Charles have on a narrow souk street involving a taxi, a donkey, several small children and some bolts of garish silk tells you exactly where in the world the book opens. I loved Christy’s view of Charles’s Porsche pride and joy “blah blah, McPherson Struts, blah blah, dampers. blah blah blah.” The truly over-the-top Seraglio gardens would probably have dazzled even Cecil B DeMille and the scenery directors at Warner Bros.

I don’t want to give away the ultimate reason for the elaborate plot conflict but suffice it to say that the location, age old practices and the mores of the 1960s ought to give you a pretty good idea. As is usual with Stewart books, clues are laid out along the way but the whole is needed before they all slot into place and form the complete picture.

Christy is a bit more cosmopolitan than past Stewart heroines but still retains some veddy, veddy British characteristics such as her “but I shouldn’t be stopped at the border” superior attitude when the Syrian guards won’t let her back into the country from Lebanon despite lots of (slightly self important) arguing. She does have moments of the usual Stewart heroine naiveté at times yet is also more “pushy” due to being raised with all that lovely family lucre. But without this moneyed attitude, she would never have set the plot ball rolling nor would Charles have insisted on his due visit with Auntie.

the gabriel houndsHow this book is different, I think, is that Charles and Christy perceive they’re up against obstacles early on and plunge on anyway in the face of them just because they can and they aren’t used to being told no. Christy even gets a touch sulky at times and (almost) earns the sobriquet one villain gives her of “silly bitch.”

Charles and Christy soldier on in the face of all opposition because at heart they’re concerned for their aunt and determined to do the right thing. Christy does make mistakes but to me they’re forgivable due to the way Stewart arranges what Christy is allowed to see and gives her plausible interpretations of those things.

Since the book is told in first person, we know all about Christy and since she’s a bit obsessed with cousin Charles, we learn a lot about him too. However I think the character I enjoyed the most is their Great Aunt Harriet. The Mansel family is eccentric as a whole but Great Aunt H has set the bar to stratospheric levels. For years she’s roundly told off the family in her annual Will letters in addition to complaining about the flimsiness of the paper used in the overseas editions of The Times. And let’s face it, you’ve got to have some chutzpah to model yourself on Lady Hester Stanhope and get away with it.

As I mentioned earlier, once the plot is all laid out and tied together, it makes perfect sense. The book ends in a blaze of glory with each person getting his or her due and in a way that will burnish the legend of Great Aunt H for years to come. One of the most comedic noir scenes, and the one that has stuck with me for years, occurs near the end as Christy and Charles “mind the pigeons” in the Seraglio – though not, perhaps the mice and rats, and then get mistaken by some (snooty) British tourists for locals. The feather in the cap of the book, however, is Great Aunt H’s final present to Charles and Christy. Yeah, it’s not quite as good as some other books in the Stewart oeuvre but I still enjoyed it again. B

~Jayne

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Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

38 Comments

  1. Angie
    Aug 21, 2014 @ 11:12:01

    I like this one more each time I read it. As you say, the blaze of glory ending and Great Aunt Harriet are things to behold. And I always happily get lost in her beautiful, winding descriptions.

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  2. Carol McKenzie
    Aug 21, 2014 @ 11:14:41

    I bought this book, with the cover in the top photo, for a dime at a thrift store. Best dime I ever spent. It hooked me on Stewart, and even thought my copy is battered and tattered, it has a prime spot in my bookshelf.

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  3. KatieF
    Aug 21, 2014 @ 11:28:59

    I nabbed a bunch of Mary Stewart books from my mother-in-law’s house recently while we were clearing it out to move her to an assisted living place. I haven’t had a chance to re-read any of them but this post has inspired me to bring them along on our upcoming vacation.

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  4. TrishJ
    Aug 21, 2014 @ 11:43:54

    Oh my gosh. I loved Mary Stewart. The first book of hers I read was The Moon Spooners. I think I was probably 12 or 13. The librarian helped me find all her books. We had to borrow from other libraries, but I read everything she wrote.

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  5. Ros
    Aug 21, 2014 @ 12:07:12

    OH INTERNET YOU ARE TAUNTING ME.

    Two days ago this book literally fell into my hands in a closing down sale. It was 50p so I bought it. That same day, someone tweeted a link to SonomaLass’s review of it. And now this!

    I guess I’d better get round to reading it before the WHOLE INTERNET is full of references to it.

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  6. Jayne
    Aug 21, 2014 @ 12:27:54

    @Ros: The INTERNET says “Read this book!” Listen to the Internet.
    I must check out SonomaLass’s review now.

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  7. Jayne
    Aug 21, 2014 @ 12:31:20

    @Angie: I loved the ending then and still do today. Such over the topness – though mixed with humor. “That peacock’s tail is filthy.”

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  8. Jayne
    Aug 21, 2014 @ 12:33:15

    @TrishJ: Yes! Me too! Once I finished my first one, I went back and snatched up the rest of them my library had then haunted the local used book stores searching for more.

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  9. Jayne
    Aug 21, 2014 @ 12:35:38

    @Carol McKenzie: When I went looking for a cover for this review at first all I could find was the second one. Disappointed but almost resigned – because I really, really wanted the one from the edition I had read, I tried once more right before I posted it and – behold! – the sixties dress in all its glory.

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  10. Jayne
    Aug 21, 2014 @ 12:36:53

    @KatieF: What’s your favorite? I’m trying to decide which one I want to reread next. Suggestions anyone?

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  11. Jane Davitt
    Aug 21, 2014 @ 12:43:02

    I love Airs Above the Ground because the relationship is slightly unusual for a romance (don’t want to give anything away) and when I read is as a teen I was into horses. And Wildfire at Midnight for the same reason romantically and the setting of the Hebrides, a place I love,

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  12. Jayne
    Aug 21, 2014 @ 12:50:57

    @Jane Davitt: I love Wildfire at Midnight too. Sunita did a lovely review of it last year( http://dearauthor.com/book-reviews/overall-b-reviews/b-reviews/review-wildfire-at-midnight-by-mary-stewart/ ) but I agree with your take on Airs and the “slightly unusual relationship.”

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  13. autonomous
    Aug 21, 2014 @ 13:03:38

    The first Mary Stewart I ever read was an omnibus with This Rough Magic, The Ivy Tree and Wildfire at Midnight. I read The Ivy Tree first, then the other two, and went to my local library for the rest. Gabriel Hounds isn’t my favorite of Stewart’s suspense novels, but it’s still very good. I personally think Christy is one of Stewart’s stronger heroines. My one niggle is that Christy and Charles are cousins, which is something I’m a bit squeamish about. That’s purely on me, though.

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  14. Barb in Maryland
    Aug 21, 2014 @ 14:35:17

    Jayne
    Ummm, the first one by Stewart that I read was Moon-spinners (back when it first came out), so I have a soft spot in my heart for it. This week’s favorite is The Ivy Tree. Next week it may be This Rough Magic or Nine Coaches Waiting or……
    I went on a massive re-read binge earlier this year at the news of her death.
    At least for me, the suck fairy never got near these books. I love them all, no matter how many times I’ve re-read them.

    And that is indeed the cover for the copy I read to death. Happy memories…

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  15. Susan
    Aug 21, 2014 @ 14:36:12

    I was going to say that this was one of my favorite Stewart books, but then I realized that wasn’t exactly narrowing the field. Although I do have *a* favorite (Thornyhold), there are so many others that follow close behind.

    I did like that Great Aunt Harriet was modeled after the real life Lady Hester Stanhope, who I later read more about.

    Over the years, I’ve periodically checked Amazon to see if more of Stewart’s books would be released in digital. It’s been very slow going, with only several titles available, and most of those exorbitantly expensive. When I checked just now, it looks like her paper books have been re-released with new covers–that I don’t like at all–but maybe that means digital versions are forthcoming. Maybe Stewart was opposed to ebooks for some reason.

    @TrishJ: Sorry, TrishJ, but I had a giggle over Moon Spooners. :-D

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  16. KatieF
    Aug 21, 2014 @ 15:00:38

    @autonomous: Oh yes, the cousins thing. I remember the 1st time I read it wondering when the hero was going to show up because I hadn’t even considered the possibility of her cousin being the love interest.

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  17. KatieF
    Aug 21, 2014 @ 15:16:39

    @Jayne: I think my favorite was Airs Above the Ground. It was the very first Mary Stewart I read–it was a Reader’s Digest Condensed version, in the same volume with Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase. I also quite liked Wildfire at Midnight.

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  18. Jane Davitt
    Aug 21, 2014 @ 15:37:10

    @KatieF: That never bothered me; it’s not so much a taboo in England maybe? Mansfield Park is two cousins now I think about it…
    I found a wiki article
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cousin_marriage

    and it looks as if the US is one of the places that actively bans it in some states at least. Did not know that. Interesting.

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  19. Barb in Maryland
    Aug 21, 2014 @ 15:58:17

    @autonomous,@KatieF re:cousins. Well, Christy (our heroine) does explain early on that they are ‘only’ second cousins (which means great-grandfather in common). The whole cousin thing never really bothered me.

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  20. Sheri Cobb South
    Aug 21, 2014 @ 16:44:22

    Thanks so much for this “blast from the past”! I have this book in hardcover (with the original cover art!), but haven’t read it in awhile. Maybe it’s time to pull it out again! I really do miss the “old school” romantic suspense genre.

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  21. etv13
    Aug 21, 2014 @ 16:54:07

    This is one of my top three or four Stewart books (not counting the Merlin ones, which are in a category of their own), along with Madam, Will You Talk, Nine Coaches Waiting, and My Brother Michael. I really like the way in which Madam, Will You Talk and My Brother Michael are very much books about World War II and its aftermath. I think Nine Coaches Waiting was the first Stewart I read (I bought it at a book fair in sixth grade), but it may have been this one, which my mother had in a Reader’s Digest Condensed version.

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  22. Marianne McA
    Aug 21, 2014 @ 17:36:37

    @Jayne. I think mine are Madam Will You Talk, The Moonspinners and This Rough Magic. The first two are the ones I reread most often.

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  23. Sandra
    Aug 21, 2014 @ 18:58:15

    @Marianne McA: Yes. The Moonspinners was my first Stewart, way back in sixth grade. Madam Will You Talk is my goto when I need a Stewart fix, followed by Airs Above the Ground. I do wish they’d come out in ebook. All my 60′s pb’s are falling apart.

    I always thought of Hounds as being one of Stewart’s more risque books (risque being a relative term). Christy’s not above noticing how Charles looks in wet Arab trousers w/ no underwear. Most of her other heroines would pretend not to see.

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  24. Keishon
    Aug 21, 2014 @ 23:14:53

    I loved Airs Above the Ground. I vote you reread that one. Nine Coaches Waiting was good, too.

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  25. Jayne
    Aug 22, 2014 @ 03:03:54

    @KatieF: @etv13: Ack! My family had the Readers Digest Condensed books version of Airs and maybe one more.

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  26. Ros
    Aug 22, 2014 @ 03:09:16

    @autonomous: I don’t think it is purely on you, actually. And BarbinMaryland, they’re definitely first cousins – their fathers are identical twins.

    I thought Stewart was deliberately pushing the idea of incest and it made me very uncomfortable. First cousins marrying isn’t incest in England and it doesn’t normally make me particularly squicky. But here, she goes out of her way to tell us that if they had fallen in love earlier in their lives it would have been incestuous (she actually uses the word) because of the way they were brought up. And at another point one of their fathers comments that if they have children, they’ll be straight into a lunatic asylum. The other father thinks that possibly their mothers’ genes will be strong enough to counteract it, but again the suspicion is their.

    Charles and Christy constantly think of each other as ‘cousin’ and he writes the letter to ‘coz’. We’re reminded again and again of how similar they are in appearance – that they used to be mistaken for twins. Right at the end, we’re reminded that their fathers are identical twins – and thus their genetic make up is closer than most brothers, which makes Christy and Charles closer than most first cousins. Plus there are constant references to them being brought up as brother and sister, sharing baths, and so on.

    She does give Christy a moment of seeing Charles in a new, adult way when she meets him in Damascus after a four year gap, but for me that wasn’t nearly enough to counter the constant reminders of just how closely related these two are.

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  27. Jayne
    Aug 22, 2014 @ 03:44:05

    @Ros: No they’re not first cousins. Here is the relevant section from early in the book:

    Perhaps I should explain here that the relationship between Charles and myself was at once closer and more distant than that between ordinary cousins. For one thing, we were not first, but second cousins, with nothing nearer than a great-grandfather in common; for the other, we had been brought ; up together almost from birth, certainly from the time when i memory starts. I couldn’t remember a time when I had not shared everything with my cousin Charles.

    His father, Henry Mansel, had been the senior member of our—the English—branch of the family, the other male members being his cousins, the twin brothers Charles and Christopher. Christopher, the junior twin, was my father. Charles had no children, so when Henry Mansel and his wife met with a fatal sailing accident only a few months after the birth of their son Charles, my uncle took the baby to bring up as his own.

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  28. Ros
    Aug 22, 2014 @ 03:49:45

    @Jayne: I missed that, Jayne, thanks. But I actually think it supports the idea that Stewart is deliberately playing with the incest theme. She makes them technically more distant but then deliberately brings them closer in the way that they relate to each other.

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  29. Madscientistnz
    Aug 22, 2014 @ 04:42:56

    I believe the relationship was modified for the US audience. I’m in NZ, so mostly likely read a UK version and I remember them being first cousins. While I think the horror of first cousins marrying is mostly a US thing, I was ( and still am) bothered by their fathers being identical twins, which means that they are genetically half-siblings. I think I’ll find a US version so I can finally reread a book by one of my favourite authors, set in one of my favourite parts of the world.

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  30. Ros
    Aug 22, 2014 @ 05:53:07

    @Madscientistnz: You’re right! I just went and checked my (UK) edition. Here’s the bit explaining their relationship:

    Perhaps I should explain here that the relationship between Charles and myself was rather closer than that between ordinary cousins. Our fathers, Charles and Christopher Mansel, were identical twins who had been, almost up to the time they were married, both inseparable and indistinguishable, and they had in face married on the same day – girls who bore no relation to one another, but who (as one could see still) had been of much the same physical type.

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  31. Throwmearope
    Aug 22, 2014 @ 06:35:47

    Touch Not the Cat, probably my favorite Mary Stewart, does the cousin thing too, but it’s more ancestral, so more acceptable. I loved that book. Suspense, mild paranormal, evil twins, what’s not to like?

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  32. Jayne
    Aug 22, 2014 @ 06:50:56

    @Madscientistnz: @Ros: Ah, veddy interesting. I wonder if the US version was always this way or if it got changed due to public reaction to the first cousins thing back in the 1960s.

    I’m afraid that first cousin marriage is still seen – at least in my neck of the country – as something of a redneck, backwoods hollar/holler, hillbilly kind of thing and can be used as an insult.

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  33. Li
    Aug 22, 2014 @ 07:52:39

    That’s a really interesting US/UK version difference. I can’t remember what version I read, but probably a UK one as I do remember cousins being a recurrent theme in Mary Stewart’s books. Different norms back then, perhaps?

    Of all Stewart’s works, I loved THE IVY TREE best, I think, though NINE COACHES WAITING is a close second.

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  34. autonomous
    Aug 22, 2014 @ 08:32:43

    @Jayne: I always assumed that the differences were decided upfront (pre-pub). I’ve only read the US versions. I’ve been told there are a few differences between the US and UK versions of The Ivy Tree as well.

    @Ros: Thank you for your insightful commentary. I agree with you about Stewart playing around with incest (which actually makes it interesting as well as uncomfortable).

    As for my favorites, the three I find myself returning to again and again are The Ivy Tree, My Brother Michael and Nine Coaches Waiting. I collected all of her romantic suspense novels many years ago because they are all special to me, but those three form my top tier. I was a Classics major in college so Simon from My Brother Michael in particular appeals to me (and believe me, there were no men like Simon in the Classics dept where I went to school!).

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  35. SonomaLass
    Aug 22, 2014 @ 16:24:44

    As noted above, I just read this for Super Wendy’s TBR Challenge. Mine is a UK copy, purchased at a church charity sale. So I got the full first cousin version, although I elected not to talk about it in my review. I got the idea early on that Charles and Christy would end up together, and the first cousin thing kind of bothered me at first. But it became obvious that they belonged together, so by the end of the novel I was fine with it.

    I didn’t realize that the US version was different — that’s interesting. I’m glad I read the English version.

    This was my first non-Arthurian Stewart; I’m looking forward to more!

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  36. Melisse Aires
    Aug 23, 2014 @ 21:30:50

    Loved Mary Stewart as a teen. The first book I read was Aires Above the Ground, and I loved it. I was horse mad and read every horse book in the library just a few years earlier. As a young teen, her characters seemed so sophisticated to me.

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  37. Jayne
    Aug 24, 2014 @ 06:55:07

    @Melisse Aires:

    As a young teen, her characters seemed so sophisticated to me.

    Oh, I totally agree. As a pre-Internet 1970s teen, the settings and characters seemed so glamorous and worldly to me.

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  38. Moriah Jovan
    Aug 24, 2014 @ 08:19:20

    I’m afraid that first cousin marriage is still seen – at least in my neck of the country – as something of a redneck, backwoods hollar/holler, hillbilly kind of thing and can be used as an insult.

    There was a fair bit of bad science perpetrated in the late 19th Century in Appalachia about 1st cousin marriage, which might not have been so bad if it hadn’t also been followed up by a relentless and very effective PR campaign against it. It worked. Here we are, way past the turn of two centuries and we’re still cringing.

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